Take long lunches, go home at four: tips for the modern boss

Published on: 8 Apr 2020

I’m at an age when some of my peers are becoming bosses of their organisations. I’ve recently chatted to three who admit to feeling confused. When they were underlings, they knew what their tasks were. But now they wonder: what is a boss meant to do all day?

Being Generation X-ers, they suffer from imposter syndrome, are somewhat in awe of their staff and don’t want to run around shouting at them. One of my friends has concluded: “There isn’t much concretely that I can do in our business without causing accidents.”

He now takes long lunches and sometimes goes home at 4pm. His management motto, which he keeps secret, is: “Don’t just do something — stand there!”

You won’t find this motto in airport business books. However, I suspect that many heads of companies, government departments and NGOs should adopt it too.

The traditional boss is a doer. He (94 per cent of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies are men) has typically spent his career getting up early and hitting key performance indicators (KPIs). He was selected partly for his stamina.

The late chief executive of a giant multinational company was distinguished (one of his friends tells me) by his ability to get drunk until 2am, then rise at 6am and — after fortifying himself with a swift tot — deliver a fluent presentation at 7am.

The doer-boss rarely lacks ego, especially after getting the top job. At 7am on day one, he charges into the office, eager to get stuck in.

The only problem is: what to do?

Elsbeth Johnson, author of the new book Step Up, Step Back: How to Really Deliver Strategic Change in Your Organization, says the boss’s job is making strategy: “What is the purpose of our organisation? What does good look like? How do we behave — with each other, with our customers — in order to deliver these outcomes?”

She says an organisation needs a limited number of priorities and projects. The boss should set these early on, then spend years ensuring they get carried out. “You have to be prepared to be bored,” Johnson tells the bosses she mentors. “You’ll be talking about the same strategies, not making new decisions.”

But nothing in the typical boss’s ascent has been a preparation for strategic thinking. Few organisations set thinking KPIs. Many bosses regard strategising as something to do in their downtime, after the real work of producing stuff is done. In the phrase of one banker: “Strategy is for after five.”

And so the boss starts “helping” his expert underlings with their daily work, even though he’s probably years out of date, especially on the tech. He ends up wasting his salary doing grunt work and stunting everyone else’s career growth. The model for the leader as micromanager is Jimmy Carter, who in his first months as US president personally reviewed staffers’ requests to use the White House tennis courts.

When doers take on strategy, their manic energy (“change is the only constant!”) can be disastrous. Johnson says that, especially after the Christmas holidays, bosses risk coming back with “random new ideas they have come across, or the latest management fad in their sector, whether it’s ‘agile’ or ‘digital’.”

She explains: “They read something in Harvard Business Review, they’re in the airport and pick up a business book, and the shiny new idea gets put into the system when it’s the last thing the system needs.”

Many bosses also imagine they have to motivate staff. In fact, the risk of demotivating them is much higher. Millennials, who consistently say in surveys that they crave empowerment at work, don’t want a 55-year-old shouting slogans at them and sticking up laminated posters about their organisation’s amazing “culture”.

The underlying problem is that the boss typically thinks he’s Steve Jobs, when statistically he is much more likely to be the maddening incompetent David Brent from the TV series The Office.

A new boss should therefore take the traditional physician’s oath: first, do no harm. My “Don’t just do something” friend emails: “I’ve made sure there is a strategy (mostly written by my colleagues), I solve problems between colleagues, I represent the organisation towards our board and sometimes externally, and I keep things happy in the office (we’re getting ping-pong tables!). That’s about it.”

When I ran his leadership philosophy by Johnson, she partially approved, though she thinks he should be doing more strategy. It’s true that my friend may not go down in history as a transformative leader. On the other hand, he’s unlikely to be a catastrophe either.

Think of the world’s most prominent boss job, the US presidency. George W Bush spent the first months of his administration taking repeated holidays at his Texas ranch. He was often criticised for that — until, after the attacks of September 11 2001, he rushed back to the office and threw together a strategy to remake the Middle East. Now, people criticise Donald Trump for playing too much golf. I wish he’d play more.